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Will budget cuts at New Jersey public schools spark a run on private education?

by Whitney McKnight

As New Jersey public school budgets are starved by administrators desperate to balance the state ledgers, it may not be long before parents begin looking to private school as an increasingly viable alternative. In fact, some local parents are there already. “We moved here for the education system,” says Haddon Township mother-of-two Alicia Lomba. But now, she says she and her husband are concerned enough about cuts that “we would consider a private school down the line if need be.”

With the continued tensions between school boards, parents, teachers’ unions, and state leaders, the question of how we as a community value education, and thus pay for it, is still in play. That could lead to increased demand for private schools that have, among their selling points, small teacher-student ratios, leading to an uptick in their exclusivity.

Bishop Eustace Preparatory School spokesman Nick Italiano says, “We’re not sure what will happen yet. There hasn’t been any immediate impact felt [from public school cuts], but things could change. There’s still a lot of uncertainty in area municipalities about what will happen in the future.” Italiano notes that for schools like his—a parochial college prep school—the demographic never really varies. “We’ve always had the same two populations: parents who weren’t planning on using the public schools anyway, opting for the Catholic education route; and public school parents who might want to send their kids to a more college-focused prep school.”

Even if public cuts were to increase demand for the finite number of spots that make up the 13-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio at Bishop Eustace, Italiano says his school wouldn’t expand. “Our goal at the school is to be in the 750 to 800 [student population] range. We have the capacity to go higher, but it would take away from what we’re trying to provide, which includes a smaller school environment.”

Moorestown Friends spokeman Mike Schlotterbeck says his school has been fielding more calls from public school parents since the turmoil in Trenton began. “We’ve had our fair share of questions from parents who are concerned about prospective cuts in [their local school] programming,” he says. Foreign language learning is one area of particular concern to many parents, he says, noting that over the summer, MFS had an unusual number of inquiries.

“Summers are usually very quiet for us.” Currently, MFS graduating class sizes are 72; despite changes elsewhere, that has stayed constant. “Our classes are the same. We’re happy to offer what we’ve always had,” he says.

At Holy Cross High School in Delran, enrollment was up this year. While it’s only “anecdotal,” there seems to be a connection between that boost and parents worried about the availability of certain programs in the public schools, principal Dennis Guida says. “We haven’t had any cutbacks at all in our athletics and co-curricular activities. We’ve seen an increase in inquiries from parents who are interested in a ‘total education’ that includes extra activities. There’s a lot of concern with that in Burlington County,” he says. In particular, Guida notes that parents are focused on freshman athletic programs, which are endangered at public schools and, in some cases, have already been eliminated. Guida says that Holy Cross is only at three-quarters capacity, averaging about 17 students to every teacher. He says that if the student population were to grow beyond that, he’d hire more teachers.

Of course, the same economic realities bedeviling the state budget might also prevent some parents from moving their children to private schools.

Some will make the commitment. According to Schlotterbeck, they do so despite the $22,350 annual price tag for MFS’ high school, because, “a Friends education has a strong academic reputation nationwide.” Many parents are willing to do what’s necessary to give their children an education that “combines ethics and academic rigor.” In fact, Schlotterbeck says that this past spring there was a waiting list for seven of MFS’ classes. “We also have an acceptance rate of just over 50 percent,” he says. Of those that do attend MFS, roughly a third receive financial aid, which Schlotterbeck says helps the school maintain a student body that is socio-economically diverse. “That is something the school is highly committed to doing,” he says.

Italiano agrees that the fees at Bishop Eustace, where high school tuition is $14,500, are what purchases what purchases a quality education. But he’s realistic enough to know that this price is also the reason it’s not already at capacity. “There are a lot of factors that go into choosing to pay private school tuition,” he says, “and the economy is certainly one of them.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 7 (October, 2010).
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